Robert C. Byrd, a poor child from West Virginia coal country who became the longest-serving member of Congress in history—and for decades one of Washington’s most powerful figures—died Monday. He was 92.
Byrd’s life followed the arc of American history from the bleakness of the Great Depression to the nation’s unparalleled prestige after World War II, through the controversies over civil rights and Vietnam, and ultimately to the inauguration of the first black president. None served in more leadership posts, cast more votes, brought a deeper knowledge of history to his politics—or demonstrated a more fierce dedication to bringing billions in federal largesse to the backwaters and byways of an impoverished, rural state that he loved. “We know what poverty is. We’re not ashamed of it,” Byrd told a CNN interviewer in 2006. “I’m a hillbilly, glad of it.”
Few public figures have traveled a political path that took as many provocative turns as Byrd’s.
He was the only member of the U.S. Senate to have voted against the two African Americans who have served on the Supreme Court, opposing both the liberal civil rights activist Thurgood Marshall and conservative stalwart Clarence Thomas. He worked against John F. Kennedy in the crucial West Virginia Democratic primary of 1960, when Kennedy’s Catholicism was the paramount issue. Yet Byrd went on to develop a deep friendship and strong working relationship with the slain president’s brother Ted over the decades they served together in Congress.
Byrd opposed the 1964 Civil Rights Act and carried out a 14-hour filibuster before it finally passed. Nearly half a century later, the senator endorsed Barack Obama in the 2008 West Virginia primary, calling Obama “a noble-hearted patriot and humble Christian.”
Wartime hawk to dove
Byrd was vilified by opponents of the Vietnam War because of his hawkish views and unwavering loyalty to President Lyndon B. Johnson. Yet in the twilight of his career, Byrd became an unlikely hero for antiwar activists when, on the eve of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he made a series of riveting Senate speeches against U.S. military involvement. As recently as April, Byrd argued on the liberal online news site Huffington Post for a thorough investigation of torture and other controversial techniques used in the Bush administration’s anti-terror programs.
Though in his last months Byrd was frail and ill, some of his notable achievements came as he grew old. He received his bachelor’s degree, summa cum laude, from Marshall University when he was 77. He’d already earned a law degree—after 10 years of night classes—from American University in 1963 (then-President Kennedy handed him his diploma). Billions of dollars secured for West Virginia were to expand access to health care in the state’s most isolated counties, and for research into Alzheimer’s disease.
Byrd was born Cornelius Calvin Sale Jr. in North Carolina, but his mother died when the child was a year old. As his mother had wished, he was sent to live in West Virginia with one of her sisters, Vlurma Sale Byrd and her husband, Titus Byrd. The couple lived in Algonquin, where Byrd’s adoptive father worked the mines, and the future senator would be shaped by the trials of poverty and rural isolation—and by the authoritarian ways of absentee corporations that owned the coal mines and extracted the state’s riches from them.
Byrd’s political career began just after World War II—he had worked as a shipyard welder—when he was elected in 1946 to a seat in the West Virginia House of Delegates. By then he had married his high school sweetheart, Erma Ora James. The couple was married 69 years, until Erma’s death in 2006.